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The bizarre and the disturbing—magicians, inventors, mad watchmakers, ghosts, and aliens—populate Pulitzer Prize–winning author Steven Millhauser’s new collection of short stories, which are mostly set in that supremely mundane milieu: suburbia. These tales teem with wild and original ideas, some incidental, some central to the plot, but all hinting that any apparent narrative simplicity should not be taken at face value. “Flying Carpets” exemplifies how a Millhauser story deceptively appears to end in medias res, when in fact it has found its true finale. Indeed, the story’s languorous, summery start foreshadows its end in wintry forgetfulness, but what Millhauser makes of these structural unities is never pat.
This isn’t surprising, considering his topics: “The Slap” catalogs a series of peculiar crimes. “The White Glove” tells of a teenager’s obsession with a truly creepy oddity. “We Others” is a Poe-like ghost story. “August Eschenburg” is the melancholy account of a watchmaker whose anachronistic art is no longer appreciated. “Eisenheim the Illusionist” is so vivid it was adapted into the film The Illusionist. And, among many other tales, “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman” fixates on one of many people who, the narrator concludes, “are fading, fixed as they are in the long habit of not being noticed. And perhaps the police, who suspected foul play, were not in the end mistaken. For we are no longer innocent, we who do not see and do not remember, we incurious ones, we conspirators in disappearance.”
Six of these stories are new (the rest are selected from previous collections), but all have more than mere hints of darkness. “The Next Thing” depicts a structure—a mutated mall—with fantastic and rather dreadful features, which, in a distinctly sinister manner, takes over a suburban town. The narrator, encountering one of the place’s salesman, remarks, “I saw that he was very good at what he was doing, whatever that was.” Indeed, the locals don’t really know what to make of this corporate mutation that has metastasized in their midst until it’s too late, when it has dispossessed them. “The Next Thing” becomes a very timely story of class differences and a bizarre kind of social subjugation, written from the perspective of someone gulled by an amorphous corporate con, but who, with only a glimmering awareness of what’s been done to him, defends it.
The titular story, “We Others,” plunges into a world of darkness and despair: “There is a poetry of abandoned public places, and I became a connoisseur of the deserts of the night: the three dumpsters at the side of the car-wash, the piles of wooden pallets in the delivery lot behind the supermarket.” The story is a nightmare of absent endings set in a twilit limbo. Its inhabitants, longing for extinction, describe not only themselves, but many of Millhauser’s characters: “Our rest is unrest, our peace is unpeace, our hopefulness has a heart of doom.”